Who Controls the GOP?

John Boehner’s continuing inability to manage his right flank in Congress points to the larger frustration of a generation of Republican leadership. They struggle to grasp what drives the Tea Party, evangelicals, and the candidacy of Rick Perry. To begin to understand where these people came from and how they acquired so much influence relative to their numbers, perhaps we should look more closely at ‘The Stockman Effect.’

On November 8, 1994, I woke up to a shock. My persistently undefeatable Democratic Congressman, Jack Brooks, had been swept away. A New Deal leftist who sat atop a union/populist machine; we had come to see the old man as a force that could only be removed by the hand of God. Turns out we were right.

In the preceding years Brooks had fended off two valiant challenges. In those campaigns we had a very strong GOP candidate, good financial support, and a lot of hope. After those failures the party had pretty much given up on his seat. The first thing I did on learning that we’d beaten Brooks was to try to find out who our candidate was.

That was an exercise Republicans were performing all over the South the day after the ’94 election.

The South had been a single-party democracy since Reconstruction. With few exceptions, if you had ambitions to serve your community as a judge, or a county clerk, or a city councilman you became a Democrat. You might be uncomfortable with the party’s national positions on a whole host of issues, but it didn’t matter. Abortion, welfare, and arms control had nothing to do with being Justice of the Peace.

The only local elections that mattered were the Democratic primaries. In many areas the GOP invested no effort below the top of the ticket. Across vast swaths of the Old South, the only Republicans in down-ballot races would be professional candidates – the kind of guys who slept in their cars and lingered on the courthouse square wearing incoherent sandwich boards.

Brooks’ GOP opponent in ’94, Steve Stockman, was a default candidate – some guy who signed up to run. That was the year the national tide finally shifted. On November 7, God reached down in the form of an evangelical electoral wave and called Jack Brooks home to Port Arthur. The same tide swept away rafts of Democratic candidates up and down the ballot.

Stockman, a born-again, fundamentalist Christian who just a few years before was unemployed and living in his car, was a vocal supporter of the militia movement until Timothy McVeigh made that instantaneously uncool. On taking office he wasted no time tackling the nation’s vital problems by co-sponsoring a bill to investigate the authors of the Kinsey Reports. He was unceremoniously voted out at the next election, but he didn’t go away.

Though his single term in office was unremarkable his impact lingers. Across the South odd characters of all varieties found themselves briefly in elected office. As the public sobered up they generally lost their seats, but they didn’t just go home. Draped in legitimacy as a former Congressman, District Judge, or prominent aide and empowered by new connections, they found places for themselves all up and down the sparsely populated frontier of the Republican Party infrastructure in the South.

Stockman’s chief of staff, Jeff Fisher, went on to become the Executive Director of the Texas Republican Party after a stint leading the Texas Christian Coalition. Stockman’s wife has been a delegate to the Republican National Convention. Stockman has hosted his own radio show, consulted for other candidates, and represented a prominent group of climate change skeptics at the Copenhagen conference in 2009.

The unintended impact of the ’94 election, call it The Stockman Effect, would place ridiculous characters into positions of genuine power and influence throughout the Republican Party for a generation. Though the craziest of the deadwood swept in by the great flood of ’94 would promptly be removed from office, many of them came to rest inside the party’s power structure where they continue to clog the gears today.

Barry Goldwater’s curmudgeonly warning that the party was being taken over by “a bunch of kooks” would become a political fact that the country is still struggling to overcome.

Of course, the swing toward extremist politics didn’t start in ’94. Fundamentalists had been carefully organizing at the grassroots of the party for years (enjoy this instructional video circulated in the early ‘90’s by prominent Houston Fundamentalist Steven Hotze on how to capture your precinct for Jesus). But there was a persistent delusion among party stalwarts that our wacky cousins could forever be confined to the basement. The Stockman Effect placed them in the living room making decisions for the family.

The Stockman Effect replaced the old right, left, moderate competition inside the party with a reasonable vs. slightly odd vs. “I hear the voice of God” spectrum that has rendered right and left obsolete. McCain’s ’08 candidacy offered some hope for a power shift inside the party that could have begun to improve matters. His failure left the GOP at the mercy of its darkest impulses. In its wake have come the Tea Party, the Birthers, and a whole sweeping movement away from reality-based politics.

The party will recover at some point because it must. People who value reason over passion, truth over fantasy, reality over propaganda, in other words – responsible adults – will at some point regain some influence. But in the meantime the country is paying a price. One day we will have to clean up the wreckage, but for now the damage continues to pile up.

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